This one is pretty uncomplicated. Houston had a straight-up kick-ass 2007. It’s not just that they won MLS Cup (more on this later), but how well they carried themselves through a duo of international tournaments, the CONCACAF Champions Cup and the inaugural Superliga. There’s also the incredible 11 games without a loss that carried them through June and July, a period when they went 8-0-3 in league play. Houston’s didn’t enjoy start-to-finish dominance – they suffered spells where they just…could…not…score – but, on the most fundamental level, Houston started 2007 where they ended it: as the best team in Major League Soccer.
Before going any further, I want to get one thing out of the way: I should hate this club. I probably want to hate them. And yet I can’t. They just seem so dang nice. Getting back to it…
As almost every MLS fan can tell you, Houston had the best defense in the league, allowing just 23 goals over 30 games. This is precisely what made MLS Cup, and its clichéd “Tale of Two Halves,” so outright bizarre. They obviously won in the end, but no one watching the final’s opening 45 would have considered it possible: the New England Revolution had not only dominated the midfield, they had achieved the unthinkable: they totally flummoxed Houston’s vaunted defense. While the change after the half stopped just shy of night-and-day, the Dynamo’s winning goal revealed what makes these guys champions. I can still see it (and here’s about how my reaction sounded live): “Whoa…who’s that? Shit! It’s [Brad] Davis! Close him down! Close him…close him…wait! No! Dammit…”
The point of that little soliloquy: Houston’s defense is great, they have a slew of offensive players ready and able to apply the killing blow; Davis was just the handy example in that particular sequence, but the horror at seeing any of the Dynamo’s danger-men would draw the same reaction. And, of course, Davis served the winner to another big threat: Dwayne DeRosario. More remarkable still is the fact that Houston won MLS Cup with two key players missing: Brian Ching and Ricardo Clark. But Brian Mullan was there, Joseph Ngwenya was there, Nate Jaqua was there (probably shouldn’t have been, but…), and even Stuart Holden was there.
This isn’t to say Houston didn’t suffer its moments of doubt and pain: for whatever reason, form hangovers hit the side after they exited both the CONCACAF Champions Cup and the Superliga; these took the form, generally, of several 1-0 losses, the four that came early in the season (the last of them – guess who?) and the later pair in August (to the Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake? snicker, snicker, snicker). Then again, those account for six of Houston’s seven losses in league play for the season, which speaks to a damned solid year….or, arguably, to the need for the team to skip international tournaments.
The combination of that potent, multi-faceted offense and that solid, alert defense blesses Houston with balance that, perhaps, only New England matches. And, for my money, the Revolution loses a lot of ground once “multiple facets” enter into the offensive equation. The Dynamo may have lost one starter to the expansion draft – Ryan Cochrane – but they’ll return the core of this two-time champion team in 2008. The odds look good for them to pick up where they left off…the bastards.
– Already covered above: the 8-0-3 undefeated streak they carried through June and (just) over the All-Star break.
– Also flagged above: the post-tournament naps they took. They went 1-2-1 before regaining their stride after Superliga, but more notable was the 2-5-1 opening to the regular season…just playing possum as it turns out.
– DC United owes its Supporters’ Shield to that 1-2-1 spell, by the way.
What Went Right
– Well, they won MLS Cup, obviously.
– Defense: When Houston lost, they never lost badly. And they only gave up two goals in a loss once – against LA late in the season. This mitigated the occasional lapses on offense.
– Houston possesses meaningful depth like few other MLS clubs. Brian Ching down? Bring on Nate Jaqua. Ricardo Clark suspended for kicking the unholy shit out of Carlos Ruiz? Bring on Richard Mulrooney. Even if it’s not an apples-to-apples swap quality-wise, there’s an able-bodied player behind almost everyone.
– It’s probably fairer to ask what didn’t go right.
God…typing these make me feel an unhealthy kind of envy.
– Not only did Houston fail to win both the CONCACAF Champions Cup or Superliga, they failed to make either final. So…HA!
– The offense misfired from time-to-time. A couple players had off years…not that it mattered. Um…that color of orange doesn’t really suit Craig Waibel. I don’t like Eddie Robinson…um…oh, I got one!
– Ricardo Clark’s suspension came at a bad time. Didn’t matter in the end, but you really have to feel for the player…if only up to the point where it doesn’t justify his actions. But missing two finals in a row is kinda bullshit, so full sympathy to Clark.
Key Men (as in the Ones You Want Back)
Ryan Cochrane: I kid, I kid.
The real question is who don’t you want back? A couple players hit by long-term injuries aside (think Paul Dalglish), they’re all pretty key on this team. I’m just waiting for the bastards to get old.
Anyone Who Ought to Leave
What They’re Needin’
– A new central defender to partner with Robinson as it turns out.
– I’d also keep my eyes peeled for a fresh option at forward. Ching gets laid out way too often. Ngwenya did well for the team, Jaqua less so, but getting another top-quality forward, wherever they may find him, would add to the rest of the league’s pain.
– With Craig Waibel and Wade Barrett getting on in years, it’s never too early to shop for replacements. But, honestly, these are pretty minor tweaks.